Explaining Recreation Center Finances – Oak Park

Congratulations and criticism are in order for the Park District of Oak Park, as it has now launched the much-desired community recreation center project.

Last Saturday, the traditional shovels and hard hats event took place on Madison Street and Highland Avenue as officials and donors turned dirt just before earth-moving equipment moved into place to kick off this project.

It took a while, but we slowly warmed up to this project. The focus on inclusivity, on creating a welcoming space, especially for young people during the afternoon hours, the goal of seamlessly providing mental health support in a safe space and without judgment is powerful.

That there is a track and a gym, maybe one day an indoor swimming pool, these are good things. The determination to build a net-zero building is exciting. The proximity to colleges is excellent. And we always love to see investment on Madison Street and the east side of the village.

To its credit, the Park District has sought and received some measure of public contributions and has so far been successful in securing a number of foundation, state and village grants to fund certain aspects construction.

That said, why is the Park District so aggressively opaque in developing the financing plan for this public project? It’s a long-standing haze. In previous incarnations of this ambitious dream, when the goal was to work in conjunction with River Forest, there was a certain element of mix and match in the funding plan. The park district had a few million in reserve – taxpayers’ money, let’s note – if the River Forest parks contributed as much and so on.

One donation that we are clear on, as we can see from the Oak Park Parks Foundation tax returns that we dug up, is the value of the large Madison Street parcel, which was contributed by the Schuler family . A private appraisal, according to tax documents, valued the land at $2.1 million.

We note that, through his Good Heart Work Smart Foundation, the Schulers are also notable donors to Growing Community Media, the nonprofit publisher of the Wednesday Journal, where their annual donation helps defray our costs of reporting on education and equity.

Beyond the land donation, there’s our previous report on a $1.6 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation, a $400,000 grant from the Village Towards Net Zero, and the decision last week by the village to share $1 million in federal ARPA funds with the park district.

However, our clear request to both the parks foundation and the park district executive director, Jan Arnold, to provide a financial overview of this project was denied.

“I’m not going to go into the details,” said Edward Kerros, vice president of the foundation.

Arnold told our Stacey Sheridan that 80% of the funding had been raised and there would be no tax increases related to the project. It does not tell us how many previously collected tax dollars are invested.

Why not be transparent? Basically, it is a public project built by a tax body and using part of taxpayers’ money to finance the work.

By its secrecy, the park district distracts attention from what should be a great moment of accomplishment.

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